Kinds of Smart

Humorist Will Rogers once said, “Smart people are just as dumb as the rest of us. They’re just dumb in different things.”

The Mensa society has just one requirement to become a member. You have to be smarter than 98 percent of the population as measured by an IQ or other recognized test. Yet I’m told these folks struggle mightily with bylaws and other organizational minutiae that are taken in stride by lesser mortals.

I once interviewed a university professor whose specialty was identifying various types of intelligence. He had distilled six general categories including memory, creativity, organization, forecasting, and emotional, and management skills. He told me that the standardized measures for smartness are too narrow and often impractical. He said, “We give out grades based on who can absorb the most information and then regurgitate it back on a test. He said, “Suppose you were interviewing for a job, and they asked ‘What do you do well?’ You answered, tell me something and I’ll tell it back to you. They would probably say, ‘Why would I want you to pay you to tell me something I already know?’”

He said that in school we give approval to the person whose hand flies up first with the right answer. Meanwhile the kid on the back row who has dreamed up a hundred reasons why he didn’t get his assignment finished is probably not going to be rewarded for his creativity. That had a familiar ring.

Back in eighth grade math class Mr. Holliday looked at my paper scribbled with numbers in haphazard paternless scrawls. But at the bottom triumphantly circled was miraculously the right answer. The fact that I can still remember that moment after more decades than my math impaired brain wants to calculate tells you how often I achieved such success in the numbers games. Mr. Holliday analyzed my accomplishment and announced to me and the class, “Duane, you’re nothing but an old slop.” I thought we were doing math not graphic design. I would have been more artistic in drawing my numbers but probably not much more.

Many years ago in the Tonga Islands a mechanic I knew could not speak English, but he could speak engine. He could put his ear to a car or a motorcycle, or lay his hand on it and invariably know what was ailing it.

I have a friend whose knowledge of nature is encyclopedic, but he has a hard time organizing it in conversations and presentations.

I have the opposite problem. I’m fairly good at arranging and presenting what I know, but I don’t know that much.

At the extreme edge of this list of specialized smartness is the late Kim Peek of Ogden Utah. He was the inspiration for the Movie The Rain Man. He could not get the hang of how to button his shirt or walk up stairs, but he read more than 16,000 books, and essentially memorized 9,000.. He would read both open pages at a time one with each eye moving straight down the page in about 10 seconds. In front of an audience he could field questions on any subject, from sports to classical music to history of the royal house of England; answer in detail, and almost always be right. . He could recite pages and pages from telephone books he had read, and he knew the street names of more cities in the world than most of us know exist. At age six, a doctor diagnosed him as hopelessly retarded and recommended a lobotomy. But by then Kim had read and memorized seven volumes of the family’s encyclopedia. Nobody knows how he learned how to read.

What a marvelous garden of varied minds, outlooks, skills and specialties we live among. I’m convinced everybody has the divine spark of genius in some mental, emotional, spiritual and/or other categories we haven’t even discovered yet. We just need to find out what our genius is, develop it and use it to help others.